Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, Senior Minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma is absolutely my favorite preacher in the world. His words on the situation in Syria are clear, direct, and enlightened. I was just telling my wife today that I need to add a third item to my “restore faith in humanity” checklist.
The liberal Christian outlook is directed to a Power that is living, that is active in a love seeking concrete manifestation, and that finds decisive response in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth. In a world that has with some conscientiousness turned against this kind of witness and its vocabulary, the effect of this witness will in a special way depend upon the quality of its costingness in concrete action and upon its relevance to the history that is in the making. To say this is only to say that the truly reliable God is the Lord of history and also that our sins will find us out. Yet, this Lord of history has given us a world in which the possibility of new beginnings is ever present along with the judgment that is always upon us. To this Lord of history Jesus responded with his message and demonstration of hope in concert with sacrifice.
I come to you this afternoon on loan from the First Presbyterian Church of Boonville, just north of here, where I have served as minister for the last three years. I want you to know that you have many allies in faith communities of various traditions around the world. I believe that Unitarian Universalism represents the very pinnacle of religious liberalism, but it does not have a monopoly on that label. No, progressive believers of every imaginable religious stripe exist in the churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples of the world. Sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, they seek to embody the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism within their respective traditions. I am one such person. Speaking as a Christian, I have discovered that these Seven Principles are as clear and concise a description as I have yet found for the way in which I seek to practice my faith. Like you, I am proud to call myself a religious liberal.
Too often, religious liberals have been pigeonholed according to what we don’t believe: we don’t interpret our sacred texts literally, we don’t claim to possess exclusive access to absolute truth, we don’t hold fast to a rigid, black and white moral code. All of these statements about us are true, but they’re not the whole truth. Too often, people have negatively defined us in this way and thus propagated the myth that we don’t believe in anything. (Joke about religious liberals and Jehovah’s Witnesses.) They say that we don’t care about truth, that we don’t care about morality, and that the sacred texts of our traditions mean nothing to us. And that is certainly not true.
Today, I’d like to take a look at what those two words mean in a positive sense: religious liberal. I’d like to talk about what it is that we do believe.
And the phrase we picked for today’s service is “freedom bound”. I like that. As religious liberals, each of us is always in a state of being “free” (liberal) and “bound” (religious). Let me explain what I mean by that.
I’ll begin with the word liberal. As most of us already know, the word liberal comes from the same Latin root as the word liberty, which means freedom. On the most basic level, ours is a free faith. Freedom is where we come from. Religious liberals are those have declared their independence from the narrow confines of antiquated and superstitious dogma. We struggle to keep our minds open to new insights from fields like science and philosophy. For us, critical thinking is a means of grace through which reality is being made known to us. As the 18th century Unitarian minister, William Ellery Channing once said: “I call that mind free which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which opens itself to the light whencesoever it may come, which receives new truth as an angel from heaven.” Freedom is where we come from.
Freedom is also where we are going. We are “freedom bound” or “bound for freedom.” More than most, religious liberals are able to look at their forebears with simultaneously respectful and critical eyes. For example, we have no problem honoring the memory of someone like Thomas Jefferson as one of the founders of American democracy, but we also recognize that he didn’t go far enough in championing the cause of liberty.
Jefferson’s most famous words are captured in the Declaration of Independence, which he composed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
However, we know that Jefferson himself was a slave-owner who held his fellow human beings in unjust captivity, treating them as mere objects and property. Abolitionists and civil rights activists in subsequent centuries have called for the extension of those unalienable rights to people of all races and ethnicities. Our sisters in the women’s suffrage and liberation movements have drawn our attention to the truth that all women, just as much as men, are created equal. Environmental activists have expanded the boundaries of equality even further to include all beings, not just all humans. Through them, we learn that the Planet itself has unalienable rights that we ignore at our own peril.
Thomas Jefferson gave us a good start in the cause of equality, but our free faith demands that we keep going past the point where he stopped. Freedom demands that we stand up for the equality and unalienable rights of all beings. Freedom itself is a growing thing, as is equality. Freedom is where we are going. So that’s what I mean when I talk about being a religious liberal: I’m talking about freedom.
Here in the Unitarian Universalist Association, you express this truth beautifully in two of your seven principles. You affirm and promote “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” as well as “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” These principles, taken together, provide a firm foundation for the pursuit of religious freedom. Insofar as you affirm these principles, you are a religious liberal.
Now, I want to turn and take a look at the other word in that phrase: religious. I want to talk about what it means to be a religious liberal. Now this one’s tricky. That word, religion, can mean a lot of different things to different people. What does it mean to be religious? Does it mean attending services on a regular basis? Does it mean adhering to a set of beliefs? Does it mean celebrating the holidays and participating in the rituals of a tradition? Religious can mean any or all of the above.
Here’s what I mean when I say it:
The word religion comes from the Latin relego, which means “to bind together or connect.” You’re familiar with Lego blocks, right? What do they do that other blocks don’t do? They connect to each other! To be religious, then, is to be connected.
To illustrate, let me return to what I was saying a moment ago about going beyond the original ideas about freedom and equality that started with Thomas Jefferson. In the beginning, those ideas only applied to a very small, select group of free, white men. Over time, thanks to the efforts of others, those men were joined by women, and people of other races, and people from other countries, and people of other sexual orientations, and people of other gender identities, and the animals, and the trees, and the rivers, and the mountains, and the oceans, and the air, and even the Earth itself: all boundtogether, connected, in one beautiful, perfect WHOLE. For me, that’s what it means to be religious: to recognize and honor the many connections that exist between the parts and the whole of reality. And I can’t think of any better way to put it than you Unitarian Universalists do in the last of your Seven Principles. You “affirm and promote… Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” I love that. You have summed up so brilliantly and so beautifully what it means to be a religious liberal. Religious means connected.
So then, I would say that a religious liberal is someone who is free and connected, connected and free. We need both. We can’t have one without the other.
If we emphasize connection at the expense of freedom, we end up with tyranny (obviously). Individual people become little more than cogs in a machine, with no “inherent worth and dignity” of their own.
But if we try to take freedom without connection, we end up with a very selfish, ego-centric view of the world. This is the kind of libertarianism that says, “I don’t owe anyone anything. If someone else is suffering or oppressed, it’s not my problem. Let them eat cake!”
Folks who live like this have no sense of either history or obligation. We see ourselves as self-contained units who exist independently of other self-contained (i.e. self-centered) units. We say the welfare of the whole doesn’t bother us because it’s none of our business.
You know, there is a particular kind of cell in our bodies that behaves this way: a cancer cell. A cancer cell, according to Michael Dowd, is simply a cell that has forgotten its history, so it consumes and multiplies without discrimination until its host body is utterly consumed from the inside out. We are in the middle of a cancer epidemic in our society, so you can just imagine what it would be like if people started behaving like cancer cells, with no sense of history, identity, or purpose within the embrace of the Whole of reality. Our existence is life out of balance with the whole of reality. That’s what freedom without connection gets you: selfishness.
As religious liberals, we do our best to hold freedom and connection together as our primary values. We affirm and promote “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” as well as “respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.” We are free and we are bound. We are bound for freedom and we are bound by freedom.
In grateful celebration of today’s decision by the Supreme Court, I am posting this video produced by my friends in the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The struggle for equality is not yet over, but today marks an epic victory. As a Christian, I’ll continue working with my UU neighbors and others in the quest for equality in our country and in the Presbyterian Church.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Here is an article from UU World magazine about a new friend of mine.
Ron is the director of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship. His ministry in Turley, Oklahoma bears some resemblance to our community vision at St. James Mission in Utica. I’m getting to know Ron via Facebook and had one phone conversation with him. A lovely guy committed to a unique ministry. This article is a couple of years old, but that doesn’t diminish its fabulous-ness in the least.
From the article:
Robinson, who identifies himself as a Unitarian Universalist Christian, and who is executive director of the UU Christian Fellowship, a denominational organization of UU Christians, said that in Turley he presents “classic Universalist Christianity.” He added, “It’s definitely a liberation theology—the three ‘R’s: relocating to where people are struggling, redistribution of goods and justice, and reconciliation. We do the first two pretty well and we need to be a lot better at the third.”
He said the Unitarian part of Unitarian Universalism “doesn’t fit as well culturally with what we’re trying to do because people here identify it more with wealth and education. Universalism gives us our best connection.” He added that when people in Turley press him whether he is Christian, he says, “‘Yes, but you don’t have to be a Christian to be in our church.’ Then if people have more questions, I talk about following Jesus and ‘deeds, not creeds.’ People get that. If they ask, ‘Do you believe in heaven and hell?’ I respond, ‘I trust God’s love is for all time. The details we don’t know. You’re free to believe in heaven and stay and work with us.’”
Could a church become missional in a place like Turley without a Christian persona? Robinson believes it could. “A lot of the missional churches are not claiming Christianity today because of the ways it has been identified as bigoted, boring, critical, or irrelevant, and so many churches are now casting their faith in terms like ‘following Jesus’ rather than connecting to an institutional church. I think that question about whether you’re Christian, particularly for the younger generation, is becoming less important. Having said that, I do think that what you do have to have is a sense of the transcendent—a belief in something beyond yourself even if you only name it the human spirit.”
The liberal church brings a needed perspective to missional work, he noted, by its affirmation of diverse religions, sexual orientations, genders, and ethnicities. “That means we can channel our energies not into opposing these issues, but into the creation of relationships and communities of all kinds that reflect core progressive values.”
I haven’t done a book review in a while, but I’ve been reading some good ones. Just yesterday, I finished Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century (Skinner House: 2005) by Paul Rasor, a Unitarian Universalist minister and college professor who currently works as director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom.
Enemies and allies of liberal theology are similarly inclined to use the term ‘liberal’ as a synonymn for ‘other’. Until the last year or two, I myself was completely unaware of the historical depth contained within the joint traditions of Unitarianism and Universalism. Knowing only what I’d been told from my evangelical upbringing, I had always thought that Unitarian Universalists (UUs) were ‘loosey-goosey’ and ‘airy-fairy’ liberals who had respect for neither tradition nor truth and adopted an ‘anything goes’ policy in regard to morality and ethics. I would tell jokes like:
Q: What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian Universalist?
A: Someone who comes knocking on your door for no apparent reason.
OK, I have to admit that I still chuckle at that one, even though I know it’s not true. UUs are deeply committed to their theology and ethics. If one knocks at your door, you can bet that it’s for a very good reason. What I discovered is that UUs (as well as other religious liberals) are committed to process over content. In other words, they’re more interested in how you live than what you believe. This is beautifully reflected in the UUA’s Seven Principles. I would love to go into greater detail about them here, but that will have to wait for another blog post. The UUA, while it represents the largest organized group of religious liberals, is not the only place where they hang out. There continue to be many of us who try to embody a similar flavor of religion within our respective communities. What matters is that we who identify ourselves with this label (‘liberal’) must be able to simultaneously hold and share a conscious awareness of who we are and what we stand for in a positive sense.
Given the myriad ways that the term ‘liberal’ gets thrown around without being defined, I’m grateful for Rasor’s concise and readable primer that actually digs into the real roots and trajectories of the liberal theological tradition.
If you don’t have time to read the entire book, the first two chapters after the introduction will familiarize you with what it is that religious liberals believe and how we came to embrace those values. Whether you’re out to support or criticize us, it’s important that you know what you’re getting into. Love or hate us for what we are, not what we’re not.
The remainder of the book lays out some of the challenges and frontiers that liberal theology is currently facing in its ongoing development. With the arrival of the postmodern era, liberal religion (as a decidedly modern phenomenon) is reevaluating many of its core commitments (in much the same way that evangelical Christians (another modern movement) are also doing via the ‘Emergent Church’ movement). Hard and fast categories, such as rugged individualism and universal human experience, are being questioned in the light of community, culture, and language.
Rasor is highly critical of his own liberal tradition in relation to issues of race and social class. Despite its value of diversity, liberal religion continues to exist as a predominantly white and middle-class movement. While his criticisms are honest and accurate, I wish that he had spent more time with them. He mentions social Darwinism and the rise of manifest destiny in America, but he says nothing of Eugenics or the Holocaust, both of which were fueled in part by liberal theology. These massive moral failures demonstrate that no one group, however utopian their ideals, is above the human tendency toward self-justified violence and oppression. My primary criticism of Rasor’s book is that it seems to minimize and/or ignore these most prominent failures of liberal religion.
On the other hand, I was highly impressed by Rasor’s distinction between liberal and liberation theologies. These two categories are often associated with one another in the common mind, mainly because of shared emphases on social justice. However, as Rasor observes, they arise from different historical sources, make use of different methods, and emerge with very different values and convictions. Liberation theologians tend to hold scripture and tradition much more closely, even as they criticize and reinterpret them. Not all theological liberals are liberation theologians (and vice versa). One need only look at the sermons of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador to see his deep commitment to the historical orthodoxy of Roman Catholicism. If anything, I came away from Rasor’s book with an awareness that the construction of a theology that is simultaneously liberal and liberationist would prove to be a most difficult task. Indeed, evangelicals would probably have an easier time of it, given the place they grant to the Bible in their theological systems.
All in all, I highly enjoyed Rasor’s book during my two weeks of vacation. I expect that I will keep it on my shelf and refer to it often as a concise introduction to what religious liberals actually believe.